Why children don’t always know what’s good for them


Today a student said:

“I used to think you were really harsh, but now I know why you were like that”

Sometimes what we say to children doesn’t make sense to them at the time. They think we are being unnecessarily picky or making them do things that they can’t see the point of doing.  It is our job to stick to our guns; we must do what is needed, even if it is really painful and takes up more time than not doing it. We need to be strong within our classroom and our teaching, even if for some, the school doesn’t provide the support to make this more manageable.

 Children may ‘like’ teachers that don’t make them do the tough stuff.  But once the realisation hits them in the long term, they feel that they’ve been let down by the teachers they thought they liked, because they realise that school is about learning, not liking teachers/lessons.

The most effective way is often the most painful

Because we like it when children are happy or not giving us grief, the path of least resistance is easiest. However in the long term it doesn’t work. Teachers need to be thinking long term; if you don’t deal with this now, it’s not going to go away or miraculously make itself better.

If we do what we know is best for them it will be worth it. If you’re lucky some will realise this before they leave the school, some will realise it on results day but some will only realise it well after they leave and when you bump into them years later, they’ll tell you how important was that you did that for them. 

Sometimes they don’t know what’s good for them.


Learning & cognitive science: a whole school approach


I’ve posted several posts about how I’ve been using what research suggests to help with long term memory and learning in my lessons. However, I’ve now started working with my boss on a whole school approach as we both believe it can make a difference to our students. This blog outlines what we’ve been doing and the future plans.

Firstly we came up with the key areas that cognitive science suggests might help with learning. It went through several drafts, including sharing with the TL team. We eventually decided on ‘Principles for Learning’ and these four aspects:

We decided that the central point was important because if you don’t know what it is that you already know and what you need to know, the whole idea of learning something becomes superficial. My own students like the fact I give them the specification outline and all the keywords they need to know in GCSE; they know what they’ve got to learn.

We elaborated each section with the kinds of things that teachers and students could do to use these principles. It was very important for us to keep it as simple as possible. The principles are equally for teachers and students so they both need to easily understand and apply them.

We deliberately haven’t mentioned revision anywhere in the model. The idea of revision in most people’s minds is actually something that is done far too late. Embedding these principles needs to start from lesson 1 and continue infinitely. We also wanted to ensure that the principles were universally applicable. They are easily embedded in some subjects such as maths and history however we could see that there was limited application for some of the principles in Art. Subjects such as PE and Drama now have much more theory that these could easily apply the principles.

Each of the principles have key things that teachers and students can do to use in their learning.

These were presented to staff in a training session where we discussed what subjects already do that use these strategies, lots of subjects already do lots of them but this gave them a chance to discuss and formalise a whole subject approach. We used examples from what teachers already do and also some of the great resources created by The Learning Scientists here. They use 6 principles but we started ours before these were published and decided 4 was enough.

Subjects also identified one strategy to try out in the coming year.

Since then all the students in the school, have been surveyed on learning and how they think it ‘works’ so we can see any common misconceptions and examples of how the principles are already being used.

Further plans

  • Students will be introduced to these in an assembly.
  • They will have 4 tutor sessions on these with centralised resources for tutors to use
  • We will regularly work with teachers on using their strategy e.g I’ve run a 15 minute forum on them to recap and will do one on how I use Google for quizzes
  • We hope that teachers will use these more and more (using the language of these strategies)  including when they set ‘revision’ for homework and use these directly instead of saying ‘revise’
  • Reissuing the survey to see any changes in student understanding of what helps them to learn
  • Posters and postcards of the principles – in classrooms and to give to parents who might ask how they can help their child to learn
  • Links to all resources on the website

How will we know that these have made a difference?

We won’t know if they’ve made a real difference in learning without complex trials, which is not what this is about. We can ask staff,students and parents if they’ve used them and if they feel they help or not. We can see if we tell students to do something like ‘learn these spellings’ if they respond with one of the strategies, so they pick an efficient method. However overall we won’t be able to ‘measure’ impact but we believe that knowledge of these can benefit teachers and students enough that it’s worth the effort to share and promote their use.

It’s time to get rid of marks, grades and levels….no, really this time.


Teachers on social media forums are stressing about grades, marks and levels, even though they have clearly been removed from key stage 3 and don’t exist in a new specification vacuum. Every week someone is asking for grade boundaries (that are made up and don’t exist) or criteria for 1-9 to use at key stage 3. In most cases I suspect this comes from school leaders that want something on a spreadsheet.

No student needs to know a grade or mark or level or % in year 9 or 10. (I do start with marks in year 11 ready for college applications and mock papers) They are meaningless. I’ve previously blogged on the reasons why and alternative possibilities here. In fact, I’ve blogged so many times I’m probably repeating what I’ve already said elsewhere.

However I thought I’d share how I don’t use any of these yet I still feed the whole school data monster.

For several years I’ve ditched using marks/grades with students on their work and in class tests. Research suggests that we always look to the grade/marks first and that will then determine how we feel about the work and how we respond to further work on it.

Feedback not marks 

When a student does a piece of written work, it is usually some aspect of an exam style question. There is a set of criteria that will make it a ‘good’ piece of work. These are loosely based the exam board mark scheme but are very specific and have additional important aspects of written work including aspects of SPAG. These are turned into a checklist of ‘done’ and ‘not done’.

Here is an example:

New spec tick lists are under constant review…this isn’t perfect at all

These make it quick and easy for teachers to ‘mark’ and it’s clear what the students needs to focus on, on this piece of work. They are the same for every student. No ‘differentiated’ versions. This makes it clear they can all excel and work towards the ‘top’. The next lesson students then make improvements to their work. If there are common mistakes or misconceptions I go through them as a class. I might model a good part of an answer or show an example of student work on the visualiser.

These tick lists aren’t perfect. I’m yet to be satisfied that they can cater for the levels of sophistication in writing evaluative answers. We’re working on this, in the the summer term.


In an attempt to create some sort of ‘progress’ measure it has been suggested to make trackers to show these developing. I have resisted thus far. On the whole they would be meaningless paperwork. Just because one aspect was ‘done’ in this task it doesn’t mean it won’t on another. The ‘tracking’ of student development is much more subtle than this. I’m pondering how to do this.

What grade will student x get?

It is nonsense to give a grade on a small aspect of what might appear in their exam. You cannot transfer boundaries from an 8 mark question to a paper worth 120 marks. That’s a fool’s game, yet I’m expected to enter data on the school’s system. So instead of looking at one small aspect of their work, I consider everything they do; it’s an attempt at a holistic grade. Essentially we’re all just making it up.

One way is to consider comparative judgement of students. Here is an explanation of how that might be done.

Ditch levels/marks/grades

So, on these pieces there are no marks, no levels and no grades. All students need to focus on is what they need to do to improve. The great aspect of this is that I’m doing what I know is good for the students in my class but still feeding the data monster. As no-one knows what they’re doing my data, mine will be as inaccurate as everyone else’s but meanwhile my students won’t have any shocks when we realise our made up boundaries bear no resemblance to what they will be measured against.

Intrinsic motivation in your students – have they got it?


What makes the difference between the students in the UK and those in other countries? This week, whilst the PISA results were published I saw a tweet which said some along the lines of “essentially the difference between the countries comes down to intrinsic motivation”. This got me thinking about whether the students I teach are intrinsically motivated and if not, is there anything I can do about it? Finally, does it actually matter?

Is intrinsic motivation important?

The most successful students in a recent exam were those that had emailed me questions and clarifications before the test. They did this independently. They were worried about the exam. They were bothered. They cared. But was that intrinsic motivation? Unless I speak with them about it I detail I cannot be sure. I need to find out why they did this.

Intrinsic motivation is about the learning process that a student goes through, it isn’t about being motivated to succeed to do well because of a possible reward. It is about enjoyment of learning and what it has to offer. It is separate from being academically successful in that a ‘failing’ student can have high intrinsic motivation.

I watched a fascinating clip on the BBC about students in South Korea. They showed some children who essentially were learning form 8am-11pm every day. They were shattered. They went to normal school and then to private school every day. Why? Because they feel it is the only way that they will be able to get a job when they’re older. Therefore this isn’t intrinsic motivation. It’s extrinsic. It is goal driven motivation. They may be hating the process of learning (and why wouldn’t you if you were doing it for over 12 hours a day!). Yet, has this been interpreted as intrinsic?

Could students from around the world be surveyed on intrinsic motivation, to see which countries have got this right? I assume the PISA data doesn’t record this. But it does raise a question……

Is enjoying learning more important than good results?

I did some small research into what has been already researched in this area and found some fascinating results on what develops intrinsic motivation in children.

Here is a summary of what I have interpreted from the data, and the research findings and references are below.

Implications for practice in schools

  • Consider the rewards system. Don’t reward for the ‘expected’
  • Use verbal praise & sharing of learning to reward
  • Don’t compare students with other students as a method of motivation
  • Be enthusiastic……
  • Don’t tell them you’re doing it for the money!
  • Use progression of ‘grades’ through feedback than just a ‘grade’ itself
  • Relate learning to children’s interests
  • Set high goals and measure students against their own goal
  • Give students autonomy

The research……

‘Reward students to motivate them…but not how you think’
Deci, Koestner and Ryan (2001) conclude that tangible rewards do not contribute to intrinsic motivation and in fact they undermine it, especially in school aged children.The problem is that when rewards aren’t present any longer, the reason to do something, if relying on rewards, have gone.(Covington 1998). The kind of “If someone has to pay me to do this, then it must not be worth doing for its own sake” attitude limits a student’s appreciation of the learning itself. It is only the potential reward that motivates.(Covington 2000)

This is supported by Cameron & Pierce (1994) who found that whilst rewards don’t decrease motivation, verbal praise as a reward does motivate. They found that giving a student a reward for doing the ‘expected’ has a negative effect.

In many cases, rewards in school create a system of ‘winning’ or getting more rewards than your peer, so it is a sense of competition that motivates, it isn’t intrinsic.(Covington 2000) Rewards don’t usually reward the process but the achievement. This goes against being motivated to learn over being motivated to achieve.

Covington (2000) however suggests that ‘pay-offs’ should be more things like the chance to share work or explain to others why their work is important. This kind of ‘reward’ is intrinsically linked to the learning, not the result itself or how they’ve done compared to others.

‘An enthusiastic teacher will motivate students’

Patrick, Hisley & Kempler (2000) found that in a small scale (93 students – 80 women & 13 men!) study that enthusiastic teachers did actually intrinsically motivate students. Other studies have shown that an enthusiastic teacher links with effective teaching.

Patrick et al (2000) even posit that the power of an enthusiastic teacher can awaken the ‘dormant’ intrinsic motivation in a student. This of course then assumes that every student has a dormant motivation, which if true, would mean that if we know how to withdraw it, we can make all students intrinsically motivated.

‘Good grades motivate’

Covington (1999) found that even if grades weren’t high it is possible for students to value learning. Covington (2000) also claims that if a student aims to get high grades just because they want to impress or avoid failure then their value of learning will not be intrinisc. However if a student is improving their grades through having feedback and then implementing it, then they appreciate the learning process itself rather than just a grade.

In contrast Covington (2000) highlights that ‘doing well’ can motivate but so can ‘not doing well’ however this again relates to achievement rather than appreciation of the process to get there.

‘Don’t tell them it’s your job’

Some research (Wild et al 1992) has found that students have more intrinsic motivation if they perceive their teacher to also have it. In one study it found that if a student believed a teacher was volunteering it was more motivating than knowing they were paid to do it. This links with enthusiasm. Unless you’re a great actor, an enthusiastic teacher will be seen to be enjoying themselves and thus be intrinsically motivated.

Deci & Ryan (1991) describe a ‘self determination’ theory which says any social context that promotes an individual’s

“Make it relevant/enjoyable for the student”

Covington (2000) says that if you make the learning relevant and enjoyable for the student they will be more interested in it and this has the potential to combat any negative grades achieved. In fact, it is better in terms of motivation for a student to be personally interested and fail than to succeed but have no interest in it.

Covington (2000) actually suggests running a school around children’s personal interests.

“Make them proud of what they do”

Covington (2000) says that a good grade makes a student feel proud and in turn increases their motivation to learn.

“Set high goals”

Covington (2000) says that a student that has a high goal but doesn’t reach it is more intrinsically motivated to improve than one that is compared to others. This is because competing against others is a ‘personal’ failure in comparison but failing to reach a goal about the goal itself. It’s almost impersonal.

Setting challenging work for students (Csikszentmi- halyi, 1988; Deci & Ryan, 1992)

“Let them take control”

Deci & Ryan, 1987, 1992; Ginsburg & Bronstein, 1993; Grolnick & Ryan, 1989; Ryan & Stiller, 1991 all found that allowing students to be autonomous rather than being controlled showed greater instrincic motivation.

“An ‘academic’ home life makes a student more intrinsically motivated”

Gottfried et al (1998) found this to be true in a longitudinal study. In summary:

“Home environment had statistically positive and significant, direct and indirect paths to academic intrinsic motivation from childhood through early adolescence, indicating both short- and long-term effects across these ages. Moreover, home environment was significant above and beyond SES(Socio-Economic Status). The findings revealed that children whose homes had a greater emphasis on learning opportunities and activities were more academically intrinsically motivated” (p1448)

Does it all matter?

Gottfried (1990) summarises  that intrinsic motivation is positively related to achievement, IQ, and perception of competence. Academically gifted children were found to have more intrinsic motivation to learn.

It also links to persistence, enjoyment, involvement and curiosity.
Benware & Deci 1984, Ryan & Grolnick 1986 found that intrinsic motivation has a significant impact on high quality learning.

Covington (2000) summarises

“students are more likely to value what they are learning, and to enjoy the process, (a) when they are achieving their grade goals; (b) when the dominant reasons for learning are task oriented reasons, not self aggrandizing or failure-avoiding reasons; and (c) when what they are studying is of personal interest.” (p24)


Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again

Edward L. Deci, Richard Koestner and Richard M. Ryan
Review of Educational Research , Vol. 71, No. 1 (Spring, 2001), pp. 1-27

“What’s Everybody so Excited about?”: The Effects of Teacher Enthusiasm on Student Intrinsic Motivation and Vitality

 Brian C. Patrick, Jennifer Hisley and Toni Kempler
The Journal of Experimental Education , Vol. 68, No. 3 (Spring, 2000), pp. 217-236

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation in Schools: A Reconciliation

 Martin V. Covington
Current Directions in Psychological Science , Vol. 9, No. 1 (Feb., 2000), pp. 22-25

Role of Cognitively Stimulating Home Environment in Children’s Academic Intrinsic Motivation: A Longitudinal Study

 Adele Eskeles Gottfried, James S. Fleming and Allen W. Gottfried
Child Development , Vol. 69, No. 5 (Oct., 1998), pp. 1448-1460

Reinforcement, Reward, and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meta-Analysis

 Judy Cameron and W. David Pierce
Review of Educational Research , Vol. 64, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 363-423
Academic intrinsic motivation in young elementary school children.
Gottfried, Adele E.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 82(3), Sep 1990, 525-538
Continuity of academic intrinsic motivation from childhood through late adolescence: A longitudinal study.
Gottfried, Adele Eskeles; Fleming, James S.; Gottfried, Allen W.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 93(1), Mar 2001, 3-13.
What motivates children’s behavior and emotion? Joint effects of perceived control and autonomy in the academic domain.
Patrick, B. C., Skinner, E. A., & Connell, J. P. (1993).
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,65, 781–791.

The Art of teacher exposition 


How would you explain these to a student?

Recently I’ve been considering what makes effective teaching and I think this is often overlooked as an important aspect of teaching. How a teacher describes, explains, especially abstract concepts is the key to student understanding. A teacher may have a perfectly behaved group, with great attitudes and loads of resources but if the teacher can’t transfer what they know and understand to the students then ultimately their learning will suffer.

I once observed a highly qualified, highly intelligent trainee with a PhD try to teach year 10. The students didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. He didn’t have a clue why they didn’t understand what he was saying. The gap between knowing something and being able to share that with someone who may be years younger and have less of a passion towards it than him was huge.

This is where I disagree with the Government about teacher qualifications. The reality is that it doesn’t matter about the level of teacher subject knowledge if they can’t transfer that effectively they won’t succeed as a teacher.

There are some pedagogies where teacher exposition has been marginalised in favour of students ‘finding out for themselves’. Chalk and talk has been frowned upon and undiscerning SLTs have put time limits on use of teacher talk. I completely disagree with this. The teacher is the expert. They know a lot about their subject. They’re employed because of it. Telling teachers that they shouldn’t talk is seriously limiting. Teachers should decide themselves, with a class in mind what is appropriate as the most efficient, effective way for students to learn.

What are the features of great exposition?

  • Start by using language that a student understands and gradually include new keywords that stretch understanding but have been used in a clear context
  • Use of pictures, diagrams, charts where possible
  • Use of analogy or other literary devices that help students link the concrete to abstract
  • Pace – not a set pace but a pace that the class sets. This is a great skill. A teacher can only decide pace based on student response, body language and the questions they ask. A great teacher can change the pace instantly.
  • It encourages students to ask more and want to learn more. There may be lots of questions but they show understanding and an attempt to extend their own thinking.
  • The tone, pitch, volume of voice is audible but also used with variation to help with emphasis or character where appropriate. Teacher enthusiasm will probably be shown via their voice.
  • Students are silent when the teacher explains. Discussion and questions can come after or at teacher decided points.
  • Use of repetition. Anything new should be repeated in different ways throughout the lesson
  • Instructions are specific & clear. Not ‘tidy away’ but ‘put the pencils int he pots, pick the rubbish off of the floor and put your books in the box’.
  • Pitched at the right level for the class. This is the toughest and probably the most important. There is no point teaching Pythagoras’s triangle theorem if they don’t understand square numbers, addition etc There is no point in using university level language unless they have basic terminology nailed. This isn’t the same as having high expectations, it’s about enabling students to access high level content appropriately.

It’s easy to know when teacher exposition isn’t clear enough through the following (although these are not just attributed to unclear exposition):

  • Body language – slumping, looking around the room, fiddling etc
  • Student comments such as ‘I don’t get it’, ‘I don’t understand what I have to do’ ‘I can’t do X’
  • Student questions ask the thing that you thought you’d just explained
  • Student work is incorrect
  • Students don’t complete the work (because they can’t)

How to improve exposition

Practise explaining as part of planning.

Record yourself explaining something. Listen back. Was it clear? Why?

Watch someone teach that is good at exposition. Listen to examples of the above list of features.

Write yourself a mini-script or list of points you will follow when explaining so you get the correct order etc

Practise explaining with a colleague/friend/relative  who doesn’t know anything about the topic

Improving schools; its all about the teaching.


Over my years as teacher and leader I have seen some formidable initiatives aimed at raising achievement, including: learning to learn lessons, motivational speakers for students, gifted and talented programs, revision sessions, elaborate marking policies, teacher tips, Mocksteds…..

I’ve realised (yes it’s taken a while), none of these will have the overall significant impact of one thing; lessons where kids learn.

Teaching and learning leads/teams around the country are focussing on all these exciting things when they only need to focus on lessons, the teaching that happens and whether that leads to learning. If behaviour is sorted,  nothing else is needed.

So why don’t they? Because it’s tough. Teachers have made classrooms their own personal work area. We are a fairly autonomous profession with many teachers having never stepped into a colleague’s room except to borrow a board pen or to give a note to another teacher. If you’ve been teaching for 25 years, the only classroom you may know is your own. If anyone comes to your class it’s probably only been to judge you or to tell off a naughty kid.

Talking about learning has almost become taboo. Instead of being the first questions asked of a teacher, the peripherals have become the focus.

It only needs two questions: ‘Did they all learn what you wanted them to learn? How do/will you know?’ Instead of ‘When were their books last marked?’ Or ‘Why didn’t you do the school’s 5 minute starter activity?’.

Learning is the hot potato.

One reason is because it requires people to go into other people’s classrooms. As said above, this is contentious. Past history of judgemental observations and union guidelines on restricting the hours have made it almost untouchable. It’s the most important thing yet has become the least well used.

Everything has also been muddied by programmes & systems that claim to be a silver bullet: TEEP, thinking hats, VAK, 3 part lessons, showing progress in 20 minutes…..the list goes on. These take the focus away from the difficult discussions about learning with teachers  and make life easier for leaders to say ‘you’ve not followed X way of teaching’ or you didn’t do ‘Y’.

Another reason why it’s easy to avoid talking about learning is that we can’t see it. In my career we’ve gone from observations which claimed to ‘see’ if children were learning ,  book scrutinies that can show this mysterious thing of progression  and using data as a proxy for learning. None of these are good enough but can we agree on what might show learning? If not, we will always fudge our way around learning.

Finally, I fear that many teachers don’t really know much about learning and what research suggests works in the classroom. I don’t remember it on my PGCE and my NQT did nothing on it last year. Leaders and teachers need to be clear from the start what may/may not help. Some of the examples above have clearly been peddled without secure research behind them yet schools and leaders have grabbed on to them as their solution to raising achievement.

So if you’re a leader think carefully about what you do and spend your efforts on:

  • How do your plans link directly to learning and what happens in the classroom?
  • How will you start the discussions with teachers on the two most important questions?
  • Is your worked linked with research? How can it support it?
  • How will you create a culture where more than one adult in a classroom isn’t seen as a negative?
  • How will you support staff to keep learning as the core focus?
  • How do you use data to unpick the state of learning instead of making sweeping statements about groups?

and if you’re part of a formal organisation that is supporting developing leaders, how will you ensure that participants keep learning as their focus?

‘Please complete this!’


‘Finish this work’…..’Underline your title’……’Please check your spellings’

How many times have you written these in a student’s book?

How many times did they actually do as you asked?

Have you ever asked yourself why?

Maybe they didn’t have the time to do it. Maybe they don’t care about the work. Maybe they don’t know how to finish it. Maybe it was done so long ago they don’t remember what to do.

Do yourself a favour, stop writing this stuff unless you’ve reflected on why they haven’t done it and have a plan on when/how they will do it. 

Otherwise you’re just talking to yourself. Life’s too short.

Are you brave enough to ditch data? The battle of Data, Ofsted and Research 


There are still many leaders in schools that regularly reference Ofsted to justify what they do. However, many brave leaders have the experience and confidence to do things because they believe they are what is best for students and their learning. Examples are stopping lesson observation grading, stopping the expectation of showing progress in 20 minutes during a lesson and ceasing excessive marking strategies. Many of these have been debunked or lack support from research.

However, there is one practice that very few leaders will drop, for which the research is ignored; data.

In this blog the data I will be referring to is grades, levels, marks and percentages; classroom level data.

How many leaders would be brave enough to submit a blank spreadsheet to Ofsted or as a minimum keystage 2 data and key stage 4 outcomes?

a blank spreadsheet

I tell my students that only one grade really matters, the one on their results sheet in August. The stuff in between isn’t summative, it’s formative. So why do teachers have to regularly submit data to a spreadsheet throughout each key stage? This data has to come from somewhere, so teachers create systems to generate the data that is required.

What does the research say about classroom level data?
It’s simple, we don’t need it and generally has a negative impact on learning.

  • It reduces motivation
  • Students focus on the grade/level/number/percentage not how to improve
  • It is usually generated for external sources not for learning itself

This webinar by Dylan Wiliam is an excellent watch. Whilst it focuses on feedback it clearly shows the research indicates that ‘strong feedback’ is more effective for learning than giving grades.

This slide in particular shows how weak feedback (just giving results) compares to strong feedback.

However many leaders would say that few people give just a grade. They give written feedback and/or targets to improve. However the same research shows that the sheer existence of the grade/number on the paper reduces impact compared to no grade/number, just feedback & target action.

Research shows we need to ditch grades/levels so why is it so hard for leaders to follow?

Key stage 3 – A missed opportunity 

Life without levels was the ideal opportunity to follow the research on this. Sadly, whatever teachers or leaders came up with still ‘needed’ to go on a spreadsheet. Good intentions either turned into the Emperor’s new clothes or just dropping the new GCSE grades 1-9 into key stage 3. A lovely spreadsheet full of data is perfect to show that students in the school are progressing.

Key stage 4 – ‘the data is needed’ and another missed opportunity 

Too many reasons why data is needed at key stage 4 link to external factors. Year 11 need a grade for their key stage 5 applications, parents want to know how they’re getting on (so they might need to pay for a tutor) and the usual pressure that leaders feel from an immanent Ofsted inspector demanding a spreadsheet to prove x or y is true.

Key stage 4 has also recently had the same great opportunity as key stage 3. The new GCSEs have meant we don’t have any grade boundaries. This is the ideal to work with students on the quality of their work not marks/grades. Yet around the country teachers are being told they must create grade boundaries. This of course is utter nonsense as explained in this blog.

Possible solutions

Last year, I didn’t use any numbers or grades with my year 10. Their work was always marked using simple criteria based on  exam requirements.

After the first test they asked for a mark. I explained that they wouldn’t be getting one. From then on, they knew when they got work back it was about understanding what they’d done right/wrong, not about a number.

However I was still required to enter a grade to a spreadsheet. This meant running a dual system. Whilst I didn’t give students any marks, I still recorded marks. I teach two classes, totalling 50. This almost doubled my workload and became unsustainable the more they learnt. So in their year 10 ‘mock exam’ they got marks and a grade, alongside their orange sticker. I am pleased that as they had formed a habit of what to do with feedback they still did it in the same way, but as expected discussion about marks and grades began.

Without using marks/grades, both me and the students could easily tell you what their strengths and weakness were. They also all knew how to improve their work. However, sadly for some, that isn’t enough.  Data, spreadsheets and fear rule. It will take a strong leader to ditch spreadsheets that require this kind of data. However, if the structures and systems are put in place, I’m convinced that he who dares will win. Following research, in this case, will make a big difference.

Further reading

From Degrading to De-Grading

Click to access The-Secret-of-Effective-Feedback.pdf

Thoughts on the implications of research on transfer (David Didau’s ResearchED session)


David has kindly shared his presentation from the session here. It was a thought provoking session that referenced research on transfer and comes from his, and Nick Rose’s  recently published book here.

I came from David’s sessions pondering 3 main things.

1. If we struggle to naturally transfer between contexts, why do schools bother with discrete lessons on learning. A few years ago I was part of a team that was timetabled to teach what was called ‘learning to learn’. We spent hours planning how we could get students to understand how they learnt (lots of thinking hats and learning styles) that followed a tried and tested programme established by another school; I forget the name of it. However, it was really obvious that if they didn’t get to use some of these tools in their actual subject classes then the skills weren’t going to transfer. We ditched the lessons and went to drop down days. We ditched the drop down days and it was obvious some of this needed to be done in subject lessons. That was too big an ask for teachers so it stopped.

Whilst not all of what we did was reliably research based, we did do some stuff that research has suggested is good for learning, so are schools wasting their time having discrete lessons or tutor times/assemblies on learning/revision strategies? Should it all be done by subject teachers to ensure transfer into ther subject?

2. I used to teach A level critical thinking. It was probably one of the best things I’ve agreed to teach outside my subject specialism. It changed the way I think, teach and understand logic and reasoning. I apply it across many contexts and use it regularly in my teaching in RE, however, did the students manage to transfer the skills learnt into their other subjects? I think many did. I once received an email from an ex student that told me that her A level Critical thinking had essentially been retaught in her Law degree and she had a huge advantage over other students that hadn’t studied it at ks5. She could easily transfer those skills into Law. However, there were times when students came out with horrific ‘sweeping generalisations’ or ‘ ad homines’ even though they knew what they were, why they were weak logic but couldn’t transfer them to another context, particularly a personal one e.g ‘All year 7s are annoying’. 

If I, and some others could transfer the skills but others not so much, what was different between us?

3. Finally, David mentioned getting students to move seats or rooms to encourage students to vary the physical context of learning. I have alsways tried to get as many mock exams in the real exam hall, in the real exam conditions as possible but it’s obviously limited (PE/Drama generally lose a teaching room). So, I’ve decided that now, whenever students do a test in my room, they have to move table. I told them this week that research suggests it may help them. They nodded and agreed. Nothing to lose, maybe something to gain.

Why I use folders for GCSE


I’ve had some discussions online about this so I thought I’d share my rationale and systems.

Since my first ever option group of GCSE I have used lever arch folders with students. At the time, the whole cohort did short course so I felt it made the full course students have something different for the full course aspect. I have continued to use level arch folders for option groups ever since.

3 groups worth of folders (some have taken theirs over the holidays)

Why I use folders

  • I think GCSE should be a preparation for further study. At key stage 5 most providers do not give students exercise books. Students are suddenly expected to use folders and a4 paperwork without having been taught how to do it. Using them at KS4 helps them to learn how to organise.
  • It stops wasting time gluing things in to books
  • Work can be organised by course structure rather than by a linear time model. I think this is better for revision and reference.
  • Work can be thrown away without having to tear things out or have unsightly crossings out (drafting is different)
  • Paperwork such as exams, worksheets, course outlines are easily available and can be referenced quickly in lessons.
  • It gives students a sense of ownership. It’s their folder. Many are very proud of it in a different way from when they had books.
  • They can use a book or A4 paper for notes. This year I’m going to buy a refill pad each. This prevents time wasted giving out paper every lesson. Those that choose to use a book can have a folder at the back (see below). Interestingly most that initially opted for a book ditched it after a while.


  • All marked work is on paper so I have a small pile to mark rather than a large pile of books or folders. It’s a psychological benefit.
  • It saves time. Before the lesson starts they all go to the cupboard and get their folders. I don’t have to tell them to. They take turns on their table.
  • In student surveys and classroom visits, they have reported that they like them and are proud of them.
  • Life lessons. I’m teaching them how to organise paperwork in a logical, easily accessible manner. One day it might help them with their own paperwork.

Possible issues

  • Any external person who wants to turn page after page to see ‘progress‘ won’t have an easy job. (I don’t care, their work is about them, not showing progress to someone else)
  • Taking them home. They’re big and bulky. I generally don’t recommend them taking the whole file.
  • Storage. You need some decent space for them (see above).
  • Hole punching – they need several lessons on how to do this. They have no idea how to use them properly. Life lessons.
  • The new GCSE is going to be a challenge. We’ll go to two folders. One religions and one themes.


  • Use of dividers and polypockets helps with organisation
  • I do folder checks every half term-ish. This isn’t marking but checking on organisation and note making. I compete a very simple sheet at the front. The next lesson they all do their improvements.
  • I also track self reflections on these (see below) which makes it easy when report writing.
  • You have to teach students how to use them. They won’t have a natural ability to do it. Step by step. “These are called dividers. They separate your work. You write the title of the topic on the tab. You file the work BEHIND the tab”. I’ve seen folders fail. Why? Because the teacher hasn’t taught the students how to use them.